GHOSTS: (PODCAST EPISODE #3 TRANSCRIPT)
Hello everyone, this is Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, also known as Olomidara Yaya. I'm the host of manifestations of Yaya. Thank you so much for tuning in, this is our third episode. Manifestations of Yaya is a new healing initiative that charts the intersections between art and healing. Thank you to all of the listeners who downloaded the podcast and who have been tuning in, people who have been reaching out to me to let me know: “Hey I listened to the podcast.” That has been really sweet, so thank you for tuning in and checking us out over here because, as I said, this is a new initiative.
I must admit tonight I'm recording and I'm feeling so much sadness due to the passing of Chadwick Boseman. I know that a lot of you all out there listening are probably feeling the impact of what it means to lose such a phenomenal being, artist, someone that really understood what their purpose and what their role was in this realm and how they could really use that art, their body, their soul, their heart to make a difference in terms of representation, especially of Black people. This moment and movements that we find ourselves in... it is a very intense place in terms of COVID-19. There's a March on Washington 2020, so many institutions including Hollywood are having to really reconsider business practices and how they're conducting everything in terms of our relationship to the historical present. It’s a very powerful time to be alive and to witness, and I must admit I have been crying. It’s just been so... I don't even quite have the words for it. In one breath I am literally devastated, and then in another breath I am completely and utterly inspired by Chadwick’s faith and his purpose, and really knowing that he had to execute this really expansive reach through his acting, through his creative ability. From everything that I'm learning about him or confirming what I already felt about him he was severely, intensely, and beautifully connected to his ancestors, our ancestors, and this whole idea of legacy and what are you going to do with your time while you're here.
Image credits: @chadwickboseman
Every time I lose a fellow creative, someone in this field, someone that understands the intersections between art and healing, I'm always in such awe and I always try to do things within my life and practice that honors their lives, but through not making excuses or putting things off for as long as I'm in the land of the living. I was reading Ryan Coogler's (the director of Black Panther) statement that he put out about what it was like working with Chadwick, and I had no clue that the Killmonger was supposed to be buried in Wakanda, and Chadwick had asked Ryan “what if Killmonger is buried somewhere else?”. I had no clue that that conversation went on, and that Killmongers last words in Black Panther are just some of the most powerful, as far as I'm concerned, words I've ever heard uttered in a superhero film. Now I'm not a Marvel nerd or anything like that, so please, comic book people don't come for me, please don't, this is not what this is about. Just thinking about you know the politics of the Middle Passage and this moment that we’re in right now, and what Killmonger’s last words were.
In the first episode I talked about letting my freak flag fly, and really talking about coming out of my spiritual closet, and having the courage to be able to talk about themes, ideas, and concepts that don't usually get discussed openly. So tonight I decided to talk about me being a ghost lady and my fascination with ghosts. Literally, figuratively, metaphorically, on all spectrums, spectators, and senses of the term. This idea of being haunted by the past, or things, concepts, places, the unrested image, the ghosted image, and what it means to pass into the land of the ancestors. What does it mean to be earthbound and you can't pass on? I feel that this happens a lot with energy, it happens a lot with places, it happens a lot with objects, and pretty much everything around us in my opinion has a relationship to ghost hood. As I was pondering, mourning for Chadwick and wanting to talk about ancestors and him crossing over into the land of ancestors, I just kept being haunted by wanting to talk about the Middle Passage and Killmonger’s last words.
In my last episode, I talked about bibliomancy and how I have this affinity for books and just picking them up, always turning to the right section that I need. I also mention how I'm mourning the closing of libraries, and not being able to walk around in the stacks and to get inspired but, during quarantine, I have created my own stacks in my house stacks and stacks and stacks of books. So I picked up this book that I actually checked out from the UC Berkeley library, where I’m a professor, and it's called Ghost of the African Diaspora: Revisioning History, Memory, and Identity. Killmonger's last words in Black Panther were :
“Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships because they knew death was better than bondage.”
I remember seeing Black Panther in theaters in Oakland and when the opening credits came on, and I'm in Oakland so people came out and represented and everybody's screaming yelling like yeah, just being represented even geographically was just amazing, and being able to witness that. I'm not from the Bay, I’m from Kentucky as I mentioned in other episodes, but it was powerful to witness that. So from the beginning of Black Panther all the way to the end I was just completely mesmerized by representation, and in a lot of my work, I work with the unknown. The unknown, the unnamed, I create these unportraits of black women, black femmes who have been erased from history through acts of trauma, violence, historically and presently. You can totally look up my work, Google it, but I'm really fascinated with the unknown and the people who were buried in the ocean, the people whose names we could never ever ever trace back.
I remember when I came back from my Fulbright in Nigeria and I started reading Lose Your Mother by Saidiya Hartman and it's all about her voyage to investigate the transatlantic slave trade. She literally goes searching for the people that we would never ever be able to know their names, the impossibility of that, and I remember coming back from Lagos and really sitting with this text. The text that she wrote takes place in Uganda and going into the castles where people were held against their will and the door of no return, and I remember feeling so eerie reading the text because when I arrived in Lagos people kept saying to me “Welcome back, welcome back”, and I said “But this is my first time here, I’ve never been here before. This is my first time coming to Nigeria.” It sounds so funny in retrospect, but it took me three days to realize that the people that I met were talking about the Middle Passage. I remember teaching at the University of Lagos, I was teaching African American Art History, and it was so powerful to cross the Atlantic and to be able to teach my students about quilts and the American styles, and how my ancestors were in America and my ancestors were able to survive the Middle Passage and create a life, create a culture here. Not just create a culture, they already had culture when they arrived on the shores, but this integration of cultures and these different methods and modes of preservation of the African culture and integration of what was here in this land that they encountered.
And to also think about Chadwick’s career and how he played pivotal roles of our ancestors who, James Brown I mean wow, just the way he talks about “get down get down”, and having soul, and all of these congo attributes that he brought and really transformed the whole way that we relate to Funk, Soul, Rock n’ Roll, R&B, and all of these different components. Chadwick was a channel for these ancestors and these presences, and I'm so thankful that we have the ability to watch his movies, to watch his channeling. Okay okay, okay, okay. So to bring it back to the Middle Passage, I picked up this book, Ghosts of the African Diaspora, remember how I said that? I'm trying to find my spot... this book is so good, I've been doing these ghost studies and really trying to find literature that speaks to a lot of these themes and also, not only just literature that talks about ghosts, but how do ghosts appear within visual art, within music, within just all of these instances of being and especially through art forms.
So chapter one is “Which Through Death to Life Upon These Shores”, representing the Middle Passage, and it opens with this amazing quote by Toni Morrison fellow ghost lady. I am obsessed with the being that is and was Toni Morrison, and I got so excited when I opened up to this page and it started with a quote from her. She states: “The gap between Africa and Afro-America, and the gap between the living and the dead, and the gap between the past and the present does not exist. It's bridged for us by our assuming responsibility for people no one's ever assumed responsibility for. They are those that died en route. Nobody knows their names, and nobody thinks about them. In addition to that, they've never survived in the lore. There are no songs, or dances, or tales of these people.” So this is from a conversation that she had with Marsha Darling. Okay, I just really want to read this passage in this book, I swear this podcast isn't just of me reading books to you all, but I’m serious, this is where all of the magic happens and I just get so compelled to share it.
"Slave Ship: Slavers Throwing Over the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On" Joseph Mallord William Turner
This next passage is a really powerful close read of Joseph Mallord William Turner's Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying Typhoon Coming On. I have always been obsessed with this painting since I was a little girl. I remember being in Art History class and having this light come up in my AP Art History course and just being like “oh my gosh, somebody was documenting the realities of what was happening during this time in oil paint.” I'm teaching a course called Reconsidering Portraiture, and I consider this whole – anything by Turner is a complete reconsidering of the landscape because he was totally into chaos, and fire, and really depicting ephemeral moments within his painting, and it's always been like something I've never experienced before and for me extremely radical for the time. So let's get into it.
“The first thing that attracts the eye is blimingly white sun setting in near the center by following the explosion of color that delineates the sky and the sea the gaze wanders slightly to the left to the ship in the midground and is quickly absorbed into the white spray. That ghostly hand seems to drag the vessel towards the darkness of a storm” did I tell you all to close your eyes for this? You should close your eyes “leaving the ship to its fate to follow –” but don’t close your eyes if you're driving or something like that... pause it, and wait until you can close your eyes somewhere. Interrupting the passage – okay, focus! “leaving the ship to its fate to follow the lights and darks on the water the eye catches among the troughs and swells small brown and black shapes in the water that it cannot immediately identify. Following their trail to the right, it suddenly stops at what is unmistakably a human leg shackled at the ankle and emerging from the waves while the rest of the body disappears underwater. A shoal of fish of various sizes and shapes is nibbling at the flesh, while all around, more fish and other forbidding shapes and shadows appear rushing through the waves towards the figure. Drawn back to the little dark shapes, slightly to the left and looking at him more closely, the viewer now identifies them as hands and wanders at the floating chains attached to them. Such as the sight offered by one of the most famous pictorial evocations of the Middle Passage, despite its title, J.M.W. Turner’s painting Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying Typhoon Coming On, also commonly known as The Slave Ship, does not show slaves in the process of being thrown overboard but floating or drowning in the foreground while the ship, already in the distance, is sailing away toward an ominous storm. Turner’s manipulation of the viewer’s gaze is crucial to the painting’s impact as it effectively guides our reaction from awe at the raw power of nature through empathy at the vulnerability of the ship, to horror at the view of the submerged fractured body of the slave. The force of the painting can also be said to come from the way it sublimates its theme by transposing the horror of the slave trade onto the seascape. The typhoon announced in the painting’s title can be seen as a symbol of final judgment against the slavers, while the blood-colored sea evokes the violence the slave trade unleashes on its victims. But this oblique treatment of the subject can also be seen as potentially misleading.
In Cliff’s third novel Free Enterprise, when Alice Hooper, the proud new owner of the slave ship, presents the painting to her guests, Mary Ellen Pleasant feels moved by the painting and is grateful that the artists have portrayed it, thus indicating the horror of the thing aslant. The reactions of the other presumably white guests, however, made Pleasant aware that they do not view the painting in the same way. One of them soon proves her fears right when he exclaims “The thing (the slave trade) is behind us. The year is 1874, and surely we can enjoy the art it engendered and appreciate Turner's brilliance with form, color.” While this comment fills Ms. Hooper with shame and prompts her to write Pleasant a letter of apology, and even reflect on whether her purchase of the painting might not make the art dealer profit off of the slave trade, even she fails to see what Pleasant herself identifies as the difference between them: the white woman and the black one. While you focus on the background of the Turner painting, Pleasant writes back, I cannot tear my eyes from the foreground. It is who we are. Wow.
So, full disclosure, I am completely obsessed with Mary Ellen Pleasant. While working on this commission for Bayview Hunters-Point in San Francisco I found out that she actually funded a major portion of John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, and she was a pivotal part of the Underground Railroad in ways in which she was able to acquire a lot of property and turn them into laundromats, and employ formerly enslaved individuals or people who took their freedom into their own hands and ran away from their slave masters. So you all have to imagine what it was like to go to one of the stacks and to pick this up, and to see this collision of Killmonger, Mary Ellen Pleasant, Turner, and just thinking about this moment that we’re in, in the passing of Chadwick. Just this moment that we’re in that is unrelenting in ways that we just have to pay attention to.
I spoke in last episodes about this insistence upon forgetting or this historical amnesia that we're so ingrained to have and to continue to just go back to “normal."
I'm still haunted by those unnamed and unknown individuals. Even right now in the midst of COVID, in the midst of a pandemic before the uprisings, I was so haunted by the huge numbers of lives that were being lost, Black and Brown lives in our nation due to COVID.
Really questioning this whole idea of an essential worker, and even thinking “Ok, I’m an artist with this title, this rank, or these different associations. Am I essential? Is my form of truth-telling essential right now?” I’ve been grappling with that a whole lot during this time, especially the politics of the art world and how we participate in it, or don't participate in it. There's so much that's known about the lack of Hollywood within itself to have positive portrayals of Black and Brown individuals, Asian people, non-white individuals, throughout its history. I just kept thinking “Oh my gosh, Chadwick did not let that deter him”. He continued to pursue his passion, and he knew that Black Panther would be bigger than him, that it would be bigger than everyone. I really loved reading Ryan Coogler’s really heartfelt beautiful statements about Chadwick. That even when he doubted the impact of Black Panther, Chadwick was always there to say “No, this is really powerful, we have got to keep going, we have got to keep doing this.” So I've been thinking a lot about my own doubts, or what to do with my time while I'm here, and how am I going to make a difference with my legacy, and how am I just going to do the things that terrify me? Because when you’re called to talk about the unknown, when you’re called to talk about the ghost of history, it's not something that you necessarily choose, it chooses you.
So if there are some of you out there who also kind of share that status of being nagged and haunted by photographs, and by memories, by certain moments of time that you have to keep talking about in your artwork. I can't tell you how many people try to dissuade me from working with a lot of the colonial imagery that I work with, the photographs, and saying “you should generate your own imagery for your artwork, and don't be so caught up on the colonial gaze.” I was like no, there's something about these images and these archives, and the circulation of these photographs. When I look at them, the photographs, the women in the photographs, their eyes talk to me. I'm being chosen by them, it's not the other way around. There's so much that has happened within history that never gets discussed, it's never talked about. We're told to move on, to get over it. I just think that it is a very powerful time to really reconsider what this nation's relationship is to Blackness and representation, and the rights of Black Americans. It's such an urgent matter.
Speaking of being haunted, in January, Harriet Tubman has just become this major guide for me, and I started just getting my hands on any and everything written about her, and I learned that she was clairaudient, clairvoyant, and an herbalist, a healer. She would have vivid dreams, she's famous for predicting the Civil War. She said, “slavery will not end unless it's going to be blood on both sides.” Actually, her predictions ran in her family because her father predicted the Spanish Civil War I believe, and so I just got this feeling that I was supposed to get this photograph of her and have it in my home to just inspire me during this time. Right when COVID-19 hit, maybe a day before, something told me that I had to go to the theaters and see the Harriet movie. I live in Berkeley, so I went to one of the mom and pop's indie theaters that I love, and I was literally the only one in the movie theater. I caught the late show, I was the only one there and it was one of those spooky theaters y’all, I'm telling you, extremely spooky. I was the only one there and it felt like – I joked with my friends about this – I said it felt like all of my ancestors had a seat last night to watch Harriet with me. It was so powerful to see it play out over the screen with all of those landscapes. I actually lived in Maryland for a while and it was just so beautiful to see those scenes play out. So I got this feeling that I was supposed to get this photograph of her, and there are a few photographs, one in which she's closer to joining the land of the ancestors, another one where she is in her attire that she would wear in the Underground Railroad, but then I came across this other one which had to be taken around the time that she emancipated herself, and she is just absolutely stunning. She's sitting in this chair and she has this beautiful bell-shaped skirt and just the energy that this woman embodies... I have this thing with photographs, especially photographs from the mid 1800s, and she has to be closer in age to me right now.
I think so much about modern-day abolitionism. I think so much about not just being this artist that is in the studio making works that then go into the market or certain people's homes or private collections and participating in something that services the elite. I’m really interested in what my art has the power to do, how can it become this catalyst? How can I be a channel to talk about the unnamed and the unknown? Can artwork be a form of abolitionism? It was just so powerful to hear Killmonger's last words, the fact that we end that epic piece, this Disney movie, talking about the Middle Passage. I'm still in awe by those words “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.”
I'm also wondering too, to listeners out there:
What are the stories of your ancestors? How do they inspire you? Are there unknown, unnamed, individuals who traveled, or went through amazing voyages?
Someone was saying that to even be here right now is proof of overcoming the impossibility. What are some of the stories of your ancestors that need to be told, or acknowledged on a greater scale, or written about, or channeled through your artwork, or channeled through your presence, or discussed collectively?
I tell people all the time, white people have ethnicities, they have histories and ancestors, and your origin story just doesn't start with a whiteness like my origin story just doesn't start with Blackness. These are literal constructs, and how can you, as a form of praxis, really dig deep into these unnamed, unknown individuals? I found through doing this work that, once you acknowledge them and once you open yourself up to acknowledge these histories and elevate these histories, so many things start to open up to you. Archives, books, a family member will call you and say they found something in the attic, so much stuff opens up when you decide to allow it to.
This is just what's been on my mind. What am I doing with my time here, and how do I continue to create spaces for the unknown, and unnamed? How do I leave a full legacy, a full lived life to honor those whose times are done in this bodily form? I hope that somewhere in this there was a catalyst for you that inspired you. If you are interested in working with images of the unknown or the unnamed I highly recommend Lose Your Mother, I recommend Listening to Images by Tina M. Campt. There's just so many books that I recommend, maybe I'll put my reading list on my website, or maybe on the Manifestations of Yaya blog. That's it for now, I’m sure you'll hear me talking about ghosts all throughout this podcast this season, so thank you so much for tuning in and I hope you can be as well as well can be during this time. Thank you for tuning in, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can shoot me a DM on Instagram @manifestationsof.
That's it for now, Ashé.